Minding the Borderlands

Mark Koester (@markwkoester) on the art of travel and technology

The Future of Economic, Political, Socio-cultural, and Ethical Interconnections: What if All Borders Were Abolished? (Part 2)

With these basic ideas from the “show” or presentation about this World Without Borders in Part 1, let’s turn to some other issues, like for example the economic migration of people legally and illegally in a planet already characterized by a globalization of goods and ideas. Globalization of goods and ideas, so why not people? An Economic Response

We already live and work in a world of economic, political, and socio-cultural interconnections. If globalization is a factual process, as I believe, then the world is already in a certain situation of globalism. Even though we haven’t really clarified the rules and laws of this international world (excluding perhaps the U.N., the Council of Europe, etc.), we already live in a globalized world where goods and ideas pass relatively easily across borders. This is a fact that has existed for a long, long time, but what has changed is the speed and importance of this international trade.

Cultural merchandise travels so fast that the music (especially pop music) in one country is often not so different from other countries. Products come from all over the world to a kind of globalized supermarket, which services more and more of a globalized clientele. Even though I’ve yet to verify this fact, I’m pretty sure you can buy a Coke or a Pepsi anywhere in the world. This isn’t to say that local, cultural differences are decreasing, but that simply more and more cultural common points exist and starting to pop all across the globe. People still have to incorporate and express these planetary ideas through their own corporeal and cultural, local bodies. Cultural globalization, which has existed since all human time and history, has yet to make us all the same, in fact if nothing else we are witnessing a world exploding with creative difference and difference-making across exchanged and shared ideas, goods, and peoples.

So if we can agree that there is an increasing globalization of goods and ideas on our planet that brings all peoples closer and closer together cultural and economically, it isn’t so difficult to imagine that some people are equally products of globalization. With people traveling from place to place for tourism, working, conferences, etc and with spread of common languages like English as well as learning local languages, people are able to express and exchange ideas across different places and cultures. For some people, of whom I include myself, cultural and national identity is fragmenting concept. Because, as many of “globalized” friends can contest, their identity as such and such nationality loses some of its meaning or takes a new meaning when we learn new languages and integrate in different countries. Where you were born no longer limits you to such and such a life, because people are able to create and re-create themselves through cultural dialogues with different places. In a world more and more characterized by globalization or globalism, we need global citizens of the world, who are willing to engage themselves abroad through cultures, languages, and miscommunications. Not only are these globalized persons simple factual results of globalization, they are necessities for governments and all people in order to live, functions, and ethically and politically interact in today’s world.

In Europe, the elimination of borders means people can go where they want to work, to study, or just to travel. While it doesn’t seem to me that in general “Europeans” have yet to lose their national identities as French, German, etc., it is an idea in motion, because more and more younger students from across Europe are “studying abroad” in one of the other member countries through the Erasmus Program. They’re starting live and work in other countries more easily without so many administrative hurtles to jump. And they’re getting married across borders, cultures, and languages. The majority of these “Europeans” are learning and speaking in a new form of International English. And even a collective school curriculum is in the works to “write” a European history and “establish” a European corpus of writers, poets, painters, and artists. Many of the political rules and laws from country to country have been forced to adapt to this new collective, political understanding and underpinning of a “shared” space. The European Union’s structural, economic changes are being met by new socio-cultural dialogues and juridical, communal re-interpretations, which equate to an increasingly interconnected “European” world.

This isn’t to paint an overly glorified picture of Europe as a kind of utopia without any problems, because as many people in Europe would say, the European Union is largely envisioned as an economic entity. Admittedly, there are many political guarantees for human rights that have been brought thanks to the EU. While much debate still surrounds the economic nature of the EU, in particular its neo-liberalist stance towards the idea of a “free, unrestricted market” (as French socialists often critique), the European Union is an “entity” trying to deal with a planetary fact: we are all interconnected and the world is a globalized world. Living behind our national borders and our cultural biases only blinds us to this planetary fact that needs confronting as people, as countries, and communities. The EU is a living example of international organizations confronting a global world of immigration and globalization. It’s at least attempting to answer and adjust to this fact, unlike the United States’ or Israel’s obsession with borders. We are obsessed by borders but in an economic and technological world of interconnection and inter-culturality, we can’t close ourselves off or in our national borders. We have to confront and live with the other.

So, with elimination of borders workers in Poland (the classic example is Polish plumbers) are able to move to a Western country in order to work for higher wages. These plumbers would prefer to stay in Poland, but they can find a job and/or be paid better in France or England. So they immigrate for work and a country like France or England benefits from this exchange because there are more plumbers to work on backlog of projects for less than the French plumber. The Polish plumber makes more money in their new country and, most likely, sends a certain portion of their money back home. This money gets recirculated in the Polish system with increased buy power. This buying power could be used for simply buying things or even paying for a new start-up company in Poland. Money has been redistributed without forcing richer countries to “give” to poorer ones. (Arguably, as the European Union has shown and attempted to put in place, opening borders means a certain sharing of collective funds in order to improve certain structures and conditions in the other countries.)

Factories in Western, industrial countries are closing, because these companies can find cheaper labor and make more profit abroad. There isn’t an ethical problem with making profits, because the goal of work is to create shared wealth. Some companies exploit the working conditions in other countries in order to make higher profits. There isn’t an ethical problem with exploiting cheaper labor or conditions in a foreign country in order to make profits if certain basic ethical and environmental conditions are respected. Today, people aren’t being paid an ethical, fair-trade wage. People are being overworked for pennies and, in the case of injuries, with no health or liability coverage. Companies sometimes even exploit the lack of environmental controls in order to use dangerous and damaging materials with foreign works, even those same products might be illegal in the original country. There is no ethical problem in exploiting differences in labor prices as long as a certain level of basic human rights are maintained and respected.

So in the same way, if the borders were abolished, the question lies not so much with the displacement of labor and capital around the world but in the application and use of this capital and labor. If the basic ethical obligations of a good, ethical, human condition are respected, then there is no problem in creating wealth. And in fact, wealth should and must be created in order for the human system to work and maintain life in all its forms.

So the what if goes…if borders were opened, then immigrants from poorer countries would go to richer, industrial countries in order to work and make more money. This event is often describe in terms of a chaotic disaster in which our world would be invaded (isn’t this the colonist word we still keep from the Roman era of the empire defending against barbarians?) by them, these people coming from other countries to steal our jobs.

Admittedly, for most of us, the jobs these immigrants are supposedly stealing are not the jobs we want. These are hard, physical labor jobs in factories, in meat-packing plants, on farms, etc. These are not jobs that the majority of us want or really feel the need to protect against someone else’s taking. First-generation immigrants aren’t generally taking our white-collar, CEO jobs. They’re doing our jobs that nobody in that country wants (nor needs for economic reasons) to do. In the United States and in Europe, many of these unpleasant jobs are already being doing by legal and illegal immigrants and sometimes even from unjust wages.

The coming presidential election in the United States has often avoided the central issues of immigration by claiming to be against illegal immigration. By definition, we are supposed to be against illegal things (illegal drugs, illegal weapons, etc.), included immigration. So if that is the case, the issue of immigration as such remains. Companies are exploiting human beings (whether a national or a illegal immigrant) by underpaying them. All human beings deserve the right to a fair and just wage for their work. By banishing illegal workers into the shadows, we are preventing them from basic human dignity (and legality!). If all the illegal immigrants were sent home, there would suddenly be a lack of labors in many of our restaurants, our factories, etc. We shouldn’t deny their necessary and already present existence in our societies. We should try to find a way to integrate them into our societies, at first, ethically and, then, of course, legally.

I’m not convinced that opening our borders would lead to a massive “invasion” by foreigners. There is little doubt that such an event would lead to massive human migrations, but it’s uncertain the result would be negative nor would it necessarily be permanent. The majority of immigrants (legal and illegal) come to other countries in order to work, not to take advantage of our social services. Africa presents a glaring example of a continent with not enough work for everyone. Poverty levels are high in these regions because the economy is weak and there aren’t enough good-paying jobs. Thousands of people attempt every year to take boats across the Mediterranean to get to Europe and to work. It’s a simple but important fact that these people are leaving and wish to leave their home countries in order to work and make money. This shouldn’t be glossed over because what we’re dealing with is not just immigration but the problem of planetary economic inequalities.

Certain Western countries have made and are currently making more money than other countries in the world. Jared Diamond makes a convincing case why certain countries witnessed monumental rises (like Europe or China) while others (Africa or Australia) did not. The current profits of Western nations are tied to certain historical and geographic factors leading to technological and military advances not made by other countries. At same time, these nations were able to engage in colonial and expansionist voyages abroad and, in turn, to exploit unjustly these countries. We have to admit that these colonial events took advantage of technologically weaker peoples. But while these colonial exploits surely allowed a further increase in European wealth, it does not represent the basis of their wealth nor the basis of their original supremacy. Equally important to note is the fact that a certain way of life (namely the Western one) with roads, hospitals, schools, etc. was partially transported to these different places and peoples. In spite of the fact that local traditions and ways of life were trampled in the process, some of these places didn’t have any of these institutions beforehand. That isn’t to say that things were better off (with modern medicine and its decrease of diseases and suffering as a notable exception), they were just different. These colonial histories, I think, need to be a series of pluses and minuses and not simply one global plus or minus. These events have already happened so as such we can only hope that new relationships can be started.

If Europe is any example, then the elimination of national borders between member states has not, as of yet, led to a massive invasion nor has it led to a societal collapse. We might even say that economic redistribution of peoples and materials has been a more or less win-win situation. Companies have benefited from a larger labor force in industrial jobs, and workers in poorer countries have by moving to another country benefited from increased pay. Europe has in turn become more dynamic and more competitive. Germany, for example, has a rather strong economy that has been helped significantly by the reunification of East and West Germany in the 80s and 90s and more recently by the labor from immigrant workers, like the Turks.

I’m going to go out on a limb here. I think that if borders were abolished, then not only would foreign workers come to richer, industrialized countries, they would make the national as well as global economy better, would increase profits, and would effectively redistribute wealth. A functioning global economy works best when people work (arguably the capitalist crops up here saying that a competitive economy requires a certain level of unemployment) when, I think, people are able to work, make money, and, then, use that money to spend on other things. A capitalist economy works because people work for money and spend money buying and consuming. So, if millions of people in the world want to work and would be willing to do jobs we don’t want to have, why stop them?

The obvious response that is often spouted out is that there isn’t enough for these people here because we don’t even have enough work for our own population. This isn’t entirely true, because there are already lots of immigrants finding jobs and working in the United States and Europe. There is already much work to be had by immigrant populations in the West. But at same time, we could say that there is much work to be created with increased laborers.

Say for example, we imagine a factory that has 50 positions that need to be filled and, all of a sudden with the abolition of borders, there are something like 100 foreign applicants (we could even take this farther in saying that they are 1000). Clearly, at least 50 people aren’t going to get a job at that factory. But with 50 more people working than before, we need to assume that 5 or so of these other 50 people would need to be employed in new structural positions to service the worker community like at supermarkets, banks, firefighers, doctors, etc.

So what’s to be done with the rest? A new factory or industry could be created. If my basic economic ideas hold water, then more people working means an increased societal need for other jobs to service these workers (food, clothing, car repair, or whatever you can imagine).

We’ve still got something 45 people that are looking for work. This is where the real challenge for the planet starts, I think, because new businesses need to be created by wealthy and moderately wealthy westerners in order to increase jobs in the world. Banks need to help people take risks in order to make business aimed at making profits and employing more people. These jobs should, in turn, provide both economic stability to these workers and their families as well as increase more jobs societal and globally.

These human persons in other countries who want to immigrate to another country are looking for a better life through work. This doesn’t mean we should exploit them unjustly. It just means that their work should be valued justly and appropriately. I think a world without borders, if it is done by respecting ethical human living conditions, could lead to a planetary economic flourishing where everyone wins.

I know this is a seemingly dangerous idea, but the ideas that make the world better ethically and economically are always a bit dangerous in their radicality. The only way we can really be free in a planetary way is if our global neighbors are free too. This means a freedom for all to work and to earn a living wage. It means we, the rich, the lucky, the educated, the industrious, the West, need to seek creative solutions to provide more fair and just jobs to and for our foreign friends.